Agricola means “farmer” in Latin, and what struck me at once about this Morristown yearling was the field freshness of its food. My very first taste, of the jerk shrimp tacos appetizer, was a wow. Served on three mini tortillas, they delighted the eye and the palate with a spirited mélange of just-harvested flavors and intriguing textures.
Gulf shrimp—pristine, fleetingly seared—were winningly imbued with a jerk marinade hinting of allspice. Avocado added lushness; tomato, cilantro and pineapple contributed their confluent charms. House-made Calabrian chili paste provided a kick. What an overture.
The chef of this impressive kitchen, Bruce Johnson, has been head chef and culinary director of the company that owns Agricola, the all-Jersey Harvest Restaurant Group, since it launched in 1996. Harvest went on to open the first Roots Steakhouse (one of NJM‘s favorite steakhouses) in 2006. Agricola Morristown joins Agricola Princeton, which opened to acclaim (including three NJM stars in 2013).
Johnson, 62, lived in Vermont from age 11, “skiing and eating. Meals were important in our family. My dad, a West Point grad and Army pilot, used to talk about what he’d tasted in Germany, France and Vietnam. I worked in restaurant and B&B kitchens from 13 on. I loved it and felt a kind of enlightenment, that food can make life so much sweeter.”
Johnson earned a culinary degree from Johnson & Wales in Rhode Island, apprenticed in a two-Michelin-star restaurant in France, then cooked for celebrated Manhattan chefs David Bouley and Barry Wine. “I became executive chef to Jean-Claude Iacovelli, who was pretty much responsible for the late-night SoHo bistro scene,” he says. “I lived and breathed food. And then, in 1993, I was wooed by Raymond Badach to his 28 in Montclair, which became Raymond’s (one of NJM’s favorite restaurants in Montclair). I moved to Montclair, which was even then a restaurant incubator.”
Three years later, Johnson joined Harvest Hospitality Group of New Jersey as top chef. “I’m here every night at Agricola Morristown, our newest property,” he says. “The food is what chefs call ‘clean’: natural, minimally processed and handled, from Jersey whenever possible. New American with global touches. But my main inspiration is New Jersey.”
Agricola’s wild-mushroom paté appetizer exemplifies Johnson’s approach. A vegan take on the classic French pork paté, it’s velvety and flavorful with recently picked or foraged Jersey mushrooms, featuring cremini with maitake, morel, shallot, garlic and thyme. To me, an Agricola meal lacking the cremini composition would be criminal.
You could fashion a satisfying meal just from starters and sides. The flatbreads of the original Agricola in Princeton were pivotal in raising the not-so-simple staple to a Jersey-menu mainstay. “I always get asked about flatbreads’ difference from pizza,” reports the chef. “They’re all cooked in our Italian-style brick pizza oven. But flatbread dough has a bit less olive oil than pizza, so it’s slightly crispier. The main difference is flatbread is rectangular—easier to slice and fits better on a small table than a big, round pie.”
Johnson’s flatbreads are flavor fests, including one laden with pepperoni from Hackensack’s Salumeria Biellese and burrata from Union’s Lioni Latticini, plus pickled jalapeño, fresh basil, and a snowfall of Pecorino Romano.
Entrées, under the heading “Oceans and Fields,” are palate pleasing. Tender, toothsome Prime Angus short ribs develop flavor from cooking four hours in a French-style braise with veal stock, carrot, celery, tomato paste, red wine, rosemary, thyme and sage. Johnson’s flavor-enhancing twist is “letting the meat cool overnight in its liquid, then heating it gently when ordered.”
The meat arrives atop grits, with a chili-enhanced salsa verde. A nearly one-pound Kurobuta pork chop is equally hearty. “Kurobuta is the name for Berkshire pork in Japan, where it’s in demand,” Johnson notes. The chop is broiled, swathed in an Asian sauce, and served atop fried rice with Chinese sausage, pineapple, and piquant peppers, with baby bok choy. Just try to finish it.
Lush, lightly seared Barnegat Bay scallops basted with thyme butter are served atop a puréed seasonal vegetable like late-summer sweet corn. Johnson’s terrific fried chicken, from Griggstown Farm in Princeton, is coated in a mixture of buttermilk, egg and spices, deep-fried eight minutes, then recoated and fried again. Served with house ranch dressing, roasted fingerling potatoes, and a mayo-based slaw of red cabbage and pickled jalapeños, this is a chicken dish to crow about.
Agricola’s balanced cocktails, updated seasonally, furnish a rewarding, $14.95-per-drink alternative to the high-priced wine list. “We make our own infusions and syrups,” says Harvest Group beverage director Geoffrey Doloff, “and never use junk ingredients like sour mix or canned juice or soda.”
My table happily passed around our spicy guava margarita featuring tequila infused with Jersey-grown jalapeños, as well as the equally good, vodka-based, Jersey-blackberry yuzu mule.
Desserts are winners. The Graham Slam unites caramel graham cracker gelato from Piece of Cake in Rahway with chocolate ganache and torched marshmallow for a walk-off homer.
HOW WE REVIEW: Restaurants are chosen for review at the sole discretion of New Jersey Monthly’s editorial team, based on input from our food writers and critics around the state. Our reviewers visit a restaurant at least twice, always maintaining anonymity to avoid preferential treatment. The reviewer brings up to three guests per visit and tastes everything that is ordered. NJM reimburses the reviewer for all food and beverage expenses. After the final visit, the reviewer conducts a phone interview with the chef, owner or other key members of the team. The review is then submitted to NJM and edited for clarity and fairness. Stars are assigned by the editor in consultation with the reviewer. As a final step, an NJM staffer checks the review for accuracy, always calling the restaurant to confirm all facts.
Four stars = extraordinary; three stars = excellent; two stars = very good; one star = good; half a star = fair.
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- Cuisine Type:New American
- Price Range:Moderate–Expensive
- Price Details:Appetizers, $11.95–$19.95; entrées, $16.95–$46.95; sides, $8.95–$12.95; desserts, $12.95–$19.95
- Ambience:Cozy, convivial
- Service:Friendly and focused
- Wine list:Excellent cocktails, pricey wine list